by Su Meck, with Daniel de Visé (Simon and Schuster 2014)
In 1988, when the author was 22 years old, living in Fort Worth with her husband and two sons, aged two and six months, a ceiling fan fell on her in a freak accident, leaving her brain damaged for life. All of her episodic memories (memories of things that happened) and most of her procedural memories (knowledge of how to do things, like brush her hair and read) were wiped out when that fan hit her. Even her ability to form new memories was destroyed for many months, although as time passed, she was able to get a lot of that ability back. As a result, her remembered life begins at around age 23, but even at almost fifty, she is unable to remember as well as most people do. All of her childhood memories, what she learned in school, how to bring up her kids, her knowledge of interpersonal relationships, how to keep herself and her kids safe and healthy, the role of sex in a marriage–these were gone for Su Meck. To try and figure out who she was, she had to depend on others’ memories of what she was like before the accident. Her husband had to teach her how to do everything, sometimes over and over again because she would forget.
Incredibly, Su was discharged from the hospital in a state of complete confusion and sent home to a husband and children she did not even recognize. It is a miracle that they all survived her massive incompetence! Even had she known how to take care of herself and her children when her husband was working, she suffered “lightning” events in which she would collapse and spend several minutes unconscious of her surroundings. Her little boys quickly learned to take these episodes in stride and to call 911 when necessary. She admits that she must have left them unsupervised often. Somehow, they did not succumb to accidents or bad luck. Maybe little children are capable of more than we realize. Hers certainly stepped up and took over the adult roles when she could not. As she says, she and her three children (a daughter joined the boys in 1992) grew up together. For instance, by “helping” them with their elementary school homework, she learned to read again, very slowly.
Meck’s husband Jim was in some ways a model husband. Almost as young as Su at the time of the accident, he did what he could to get her cared for, and he stuck by her through thick and thin during the next 25 years. However, he was no saint. He had an abusive streak (he would call her stupid when she couldn’t remember things or when she behaved inappropriately, and he suffered from a kind of temporary insanity during sleep when he would physically hurt his wife, knocking her head against the wall, hitting her and calling her names; she was too cowed to protect herself from his inexplicable night-time rages. She didn’t realize that all marriages were not like hers. She was extremely dependent on Jim for everything–although as the years passed, he spent more time away, traveling for work, than he spent at home, leaving her to cope somehow. When they began to talk about the past for the book project, Jim actually realized, for the first time, how severely disabled Su was after the accident and how little she understood what was expected of her. She was somehow able to mimic other people’s behavior so that they did not realize the extent of her disabilities, but in her own mind, she was always afraid she would be unmasked and humiliated.
Still, she eventually returned to college and completed her degree (her daughter, then 18, taught her study skills she had no idea about). In an unusual move, she shared her story with one of her professors, who urged her to speak out about her life; this eventually led to an article in the Washington Post, and Su learned to accept herself and to come out of the closet of shame in which she had spent over twenty years. It’s a very inspiring story.
One thing I really enjoyed was that the Mecks lived for a time in Maryland, not far from where I live, and their daughter Kassidy was born in the same hospital where my daughter Vicki was born premature exactly one month later. Like me, Su Meck went into preterm labor three months before her due date, but she spent three months on complete bed-rest and somehow managed to avoid delivering the baby prematurely. This was what was supposed to happen in my case as well, but it didn’t work out the same way. It is amazing to think that our stories almost came together at Georgetown University Medical Center back in 1992!